Unlike most of the musicians who will play at the Bloomin’ Bluegrass Festival in Farmers Branch this weekend, Ronnie McCoury will play in two bands. He'll hold down the mandolin chair for his dad’s Del McCoury Band and then play in The Travelin’ McCourys, an off-shoot project that also features Del McCoury Band members Jason Carter on fiddle, Ronnie’s brother Rob on banjo and bassist Alan Bartram. Guitarist Cody Kilby rounds out the band.
The idea for The Travelin’ McCourys started with a tough conversation initiated by his father a decade ago.
“He said, ‘Look, if something happens to me or to my voice, that could be it. And then you guys would have to start out cold,’” Ronnie recalled.
Del added, “I think it’s a good time for you guys to get out of bed,” Ronnie says with a laugh.
Fast-forward nine or 10 years and Del McCoury, 79, is still going strong and The Travelin’ McCourys have just put out their debut album. The eponymous release features 14 songs, a mix of originals and favorites from John Hartford, Passenger, Waylon Jennings, Doc and Merle Watson, Nick Lowe and the Grateful Dead. The variety in material reflects this band’s mission: to stretch out on hard-driving music that isn’t afraid to veer away from traditional bluegrass.
“We wanted to do something different,” Ronnie admits. "I started playing with my dad in 1981. My brother started in ’86, and Jason in 1992. The core of us [has] been doing a lot of the same [thing] for many years. It was a way for us to spread our wings a little bit.
“We started out just doing what we knew how to do, which was traditional bluegrass. But now it’s time to do what we want to do. And part of that is playing songs that are out of the norm and stretch out. It’s a collective thing that we all wanted to do.”
The Grateful Dead covers will come as no surprise to Ronnie McCoury fans. He’s a longtime Deadhead who befriended guitarist Jerry Garcia. He recalls it was the quality of the band’s songwriting and choice of covers that got his attention when he was in high school.
“I thought, ‘These guys are not like most rock 'n' roll I hear on the radio,’” he says. "'It’s kind of [like] folk songs.’”
A friendship with someone who knew Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart led to meeting Garcia backstage at a Dead show in Washington, D.C. Ronnie gave Garcia, a former bluegrass banjo player, a cassette of a 1963 Bill Monroe show that he knew Garcia had attended in Northern California. In interviews, Garcia had raved about that show, which featured a young Del McCoury on lead vocals and rhythm guitar.
While the Del McCoury Band sticks to mostly hard-driving bluegrass, Ronnie says The Travelin’ McCourys gauge the audience to decide what type of set to play. If it looks like a bunch of jam-band fans, they’ll stretch out. If it’s a hard-core bluegrass audience, they’ll keep it a bit more traditional.
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“We can work with the audience,” Ronnie insists. “If we know who we’re doing it for, we can [adjust]. Now, we’re all plugged in. But we have on certain occasions stripped it down to the way that we play it with my dad. We just get back into traditional mode.”
Although he loves stretching out with The Travelin’ McCourys, Ronnie has no intention of leaving the Del McCoury Band.
“We played right around 150 shows last year,” Ronnie recalls, “75 with Travelin’ McCourys and 75 with my dad. He’s a Grand Ole Opry member. So even when we’re off, we play The Opry. He’s still such a great singer and player. And he’s 79.”
The Bloomin’ Bluegrass Festival is Friday and Saturday, Oct. 19-20, at Farmers Branch Historical Park, 2540 Farmers Branch Lane, Farmers Branch. The Del McCoury Band plays at 7:20 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, followed by The Travelin’ McCourys at 8:45 p.m.